Social media users fall for hoax Philippine govt warning over 'fish contaminated with HIV'

Facebook users have shared a fabricated warning from the Philippine Department of Health that hundreds of residents in the country died from eating fish contaminated with HIV. An official from the department told AFP it had not issued such a warning, while health experts say there is "little to no risk of getting HIV" from contaminated food.

"This is to inform everyone not to eat fish because a hospital tube with HIV was thrown into the sea," reads a Visayan-language Facebook post on January 24.

The post goes on to say over 400 people from six localities in the southern Philippine island Mindanao died after eating contaminated fish.

"That's why no one should eat fish for now. Please pass it around so everyone will know. Forwarded from DOH, Bayugan," it adds, using the acronym for the Department of Health.

The cities and towns mentioned in the post are all located in the northern Mindanao region. The city of Bayugan, however, is in the neighbouring but separately administered Caraga region.

AFP has not found any evidence of hundreds of deaths in Mindanao from consuming fish supposedly contaminated with HIV.

Screenshot of the false post taken on February 26, 2023

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) targets the immune system and weakens the human body's defence against many infections.

The World Health Organization said that the Philippines has one of the "fastest-growing HIV epidemics" globally. Data from the DOH shows an average of 41 people per day were diagnosed with HIV in 2022, compared to nine per day in 2012.

The false warning was also shared here, here, here and here on Facebook and caused fear among social media users.

"This is alarming. To think we had eaten fish earlier," one commented.

Another said, "Scary. I had fish."

A representative from DOH's office in the Caraga region said the department has not issued the warning.

Fabricated message

DOH assistant regional director Dr. Sadaila Raki-in also told AFP on February 27 the health department "has no office in Bayugan" as claimed in the posts.

She said transmission of HIV from a contaminated test tube to fish and then to humans is "not possible".

"HIV cannot survive long outside the human body. It cannot reproduce outside of a human host," she said. "There are no studies that show this kind of transmission for HIV is possible. This is not true."

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's HIV information page says "there is little to no risk of getting HIV" from food contamination.

"The only known cases are among infants. Contamination occurs when blood from a caregiver's mouth mixes with pre-chewed food and an infant eats it."

An explainer by the UK National Health Service similarly states that HIV lives in the blood and specific body fluids. It is not easily passed on from one person to another.

The US Department of Health and Human Services meanwhile says the body fluids that contain enough HIV to infect someone include breast milk, and seminal, vaginal and rectal fluids.

"For transmission to occur, the HIV in these fluids must get into the bloodstream of an HIV-negative person through a mucous membrane (found in the rectum, vagina, mouth, or tip of the penis), through open cuts or sores, or by direct injection (from a needle or syringe)".

Old hoax

Similar fabricated warnings have been circulating since at least 2019.

Local news organisation Mindanews debunked a nearly identical hoax warning in January that year.

The report quoted a statement issued by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources that said at the time the posts were "fake news".

The claim surfaced after the Philippine environment department said in the same month that it had been investigating the source of medical waste found in the Mactan channel in the central Philippines.

The agency imposed fines on a hospital and a medical waste treatment facility over the incident.

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